Navigating Through Warp & Weft
Waseem Ahmad – Student, Kautilya 2021-23
In this picture is Mr. Narasimha and his weaving machine, called Maggam in Telugu. I had met him on my visit to the town of Pochampally, situated around 50kms from Hyderabad. It is known as the Silk City of India because of the gorgeous sarees woven in a distinctive design known as Ikat. Mr. Narasimha is a handloom weaver of Pochampally silk sarees, mastering this for the last 25 years and his family has been doing this for generations. Usually, it takes four days to weave a single saree while working on it for 6-7 hours each day: One person can only complete seven sarees per month. There are around 1600-1700 people who are into weaving these sarees in this town and most of them belong to a caste called Padmasaleelu.
Initially, this used to be a cottage industry, and all of them had the Maggam Machines inside their homes. Slowly, as the business declined, it became difficult for individual weavers to survive on their own & they became contractual labour in the hands of Master weavers. One of the reasons for this shift from a self-owned cottage industry to becoming contractual labour in the hands of a proprietor, is lack of working capital & the issue of Loan waiver. There is a scheme solely dedicated to the weavers called Weavers MUDRA Scheme. Under this scheme, the weavers can borrow money to fund their working capital. A few years ago, the government of Telangana had announced that they would waive off the loans for weavers. The likes of Mr. Narasimha were encouraged by the local elected representatives to not pay the loan and wait for the waiver. This waiver took around three years to concretize, and even then, only 20%-30% of the principal amount was waived off. Finally, it has led to a decrease in their credit scores, and the banks are now refusing them to give loans. Due to this, they have no option other than working for the proprietors.
As I ask Mr. Narasimha about the weaver community’s issues, he shares that one of the most significant issues is the volatile input cost, especially the silk thread. The thread is ordered from Bangalore, and some of it is imported from China. Due to COVID, the imports from China have decreased in the last two years, and due to less rainfall, domestic silk production has taken a hit. Also, Mr. Narasimha hints at forming a syndicate in Bangalore where this silk thread is being bought at a slightly higher price by the power loom companies to produce silk curtains. These are then exported to European markets. All of these reasons together, have led to the rise in input costs of the saree. As I nudge him towards inquiring what could be done by the government to ease their troubles, he hesitates, and his colleagues chip in with their suggestions. They ask for a minimum amount to be fixed on sarees so that the market forces don’t exploit them. They also want a higher subsidy on the input of nearly 20%; currently, the input subsidy stands at around 10%, but it’s only for the cooperatives. Finally, they want the process of direct procurement by the government to be made more efficient. There is a massive delay in the payments by the government to weavers, so most of them prefer to sell their products to private buyers even for a lower price.
While going towards the Pochampally, I came across a power loom industry in the outskirts, and I asked Mr. Narasimha if these power looms affect their business. He proudly says that this is one thing the technology or the power looms cannot snatch away from them. The intricate design of these Ikat sarees mandate a human touch. The power looms can only produce plain and straightforward products, mainly curtains. During the interaction with Mr. Narasimha and his fellow weavers, I also realized that this was more art for them than just an occupation. It’s a skill that is being passed on to them from generations. It isn’t just about money; it’s more of a cultural thing. To move away from this generational occupation is to lose their identity and existence.
As we moved towards the end of our conversation, I gathered the courage to ask my naïve question about why this Pochampally Ikat only has to be a saree. Why could it not be a shirt, and maybe it could be marketed as a new thing in the market? With a wry smile on his face Mr. Narasimha very patiently answered that if a shirt were to be made, each one piece would cost more than Rs. 5000, and he said to me, “Would you buy one at that cost?”